7 of the World's Strangest Flowers
For most of the U.S., winter is finally loosening its icy grip. Besides freshening your wardrobe, cleaning house, or planning your next national parks trip, why not celebrate by admiring some flowers and plants, perhaps the most telltale signs of spring's arrival? Sure, you can stop and smell the roses, but why not also marvel at the rafflesia arnoldii, touch-me-not, Eastern Skunk Cabbage, corpse flower, voodoo lily, and Hydnora africana? While you could trek across the globe to view these bizarre blooms, in some cases, you need only venture as far as your local botanical garden.
Rafflesia arnoldii: Weighing up to 15 pounds and measuring more than three feet across, rafflesia arnoldii is the largest individual flower on Earth. While it boasts fleshy, burnt-orange petals dotted with whitish pustules, it lacks leaves and roots, parasitizing the woody Tetrastigma vine in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Impressive still, Rafflesia arnoldii emits a fetid odor that some compare to decaying flesh, earning it the nickname "corpse flower."
For such a bold blossom, the Rafflesia arnoldii remains elusive, spending most of its time hidden within its host's stems and roots. The flower appears when its buds break through the Tetrastigma vine's bark. A cabbage-like head develops, eventually blooming and staying open for only about five days. Rafflesia arnoldii's rank smell lures carrion flies. The flies crawl down the male flower's central chamber toward the anther, which transfers pollen onto their backs as they brush against it. They then carry the pollen to a female flower. The projections emerging from the flower's center may help radiate heat and waft the carrion smell.
Rafflesia arnoldii’s scarcity makes successful pollination rare. Although its conservation status remains unknown, disturbance by tourists and deforestation threaten the species. The flower has almost never been successfully cultivated, although one specimen bloomed in the Bogor Botanical Gardens in Indonesia late last year.
Image by Wikimedia Commons
Touch-me-not: You might easily overlook this herb, with its dainty pink flowers and delicate, fern-like leaves. The Mimosa pudica doesn’t just look demure, though. Barely touching its leaves causes them to fold inward and droop downward—hence the flower’s species name, pudica, Latin for “shy, bashful, or shrinking,” as well as its nicknames, “touch-me-not” and “shy plant.” The leaves usually reopen in a few minutes. Other stimuli, including warming and shaking the plant, produce the same phenomenon. The leaves fold and wilt in the evening, too, but they stay that way until sunrise. You can watch the touch-me-not's response to touch and heat in the video below:
Scientists still aren’t sure how this phenomenon works, but the secret may lie in the white, fluid-filled sac, called the pulvinus, located at the base of each leaflet. (Small leaflets collectively make up the touch-me-not’s fern-like leaves.) Some researchers believe that a touch or other stimulus causes a change in the permeability of the pulvinus cells that allows them to flush out ions and water, which has been associated with a loss of turgor pressure--the force that gives plants their rigidity. This could be what causes the leaflet to fold.
The original stimulus can be transmitted to neighboring leaflets and leaves. No one knows exactly why the touch-me-not evolved this ability, but some think the movements may scare off grazers that attempt to eat the plant.
Although native to Central and South America, the touch-me-not has been introduced to many other regions, including South and Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. In the U.S., it grows in Maryland, Virginia, Texas, and Hawaii.
Oddly, this timid plant is also known for its aggressive growth. The touch-me-not begins life upright, but it trails along the ground as it matures, sometimes forming tangled thickets. Some regions consider it an invasive species.
While it grows in a range of habitats, from croplands to roadsides, you can also plant your own touch-me-not. TickleMe Plant sells touch-me-not seeds, growing kits, and other supplies on its website.
Eastern Skunk Cabbage: With a name like Eastern Skunk Cabbage, you don’t need to take a whiff of this flower to know that it smells like. The plant, which grows in the moist wetland soils of eastern North America, emits a skunk-like stench that flies and stoneflies find irresistible. The skunk cabbage consists of a mottled maroon modified leaf resembling a hood, called a spathe, as well as a yellow, cylindrical spadix, which bears several tiny flowers.
The Eastern Skunk Cabbage can actually generate its own heat, raising its temperature above that of the surrounding air--an ability found mostly in warm-blooded animals. The plant produces heat as a secondary process of the set of reactions and pathways used to convert sugars produced during photosynthesis into energy. Heat is generated in parts of the plant’s cells called the mitochondria.
In fact, the skunk cabbage can warm itself to temperatures up to 95°F above ambient air temperature, which allows the flower to melt through snow- and ice-covered soil. The heat may also help spread the skunk cabbage’s pungent scent. Some scientists believe that the heat the cabbage skunk produces may help attract carrion pollinators by offering a warm respite from the winter cold. Others think that the heat allures pollinators by mimicking the heat a fresh carcass emanates.
The Eastern Skunk Cabbage’s roots contract after growing underground, pulling the stem into the mud so that the plant grows downward rather than upward. This makes older plants nearly impossible to yank from the ground. Also, rather than drying up when it decays, the skunk cabbage actually turns into a black slime that absorbs back into the ground.
You can spot the plant growing in damp soil in the woods, thickets, bogs, or along streams and springs in the eastern U.S. The Native Flora Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden also grows Eastern Skunk Cabbage. The skunk cabbage requires a wet, shady spot and can survive in standing water, but only if the water eventually evaporates or seeps into the soil.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Hydnora Africana: Hidden in the desert region of Southern Africa, you may mistake this flower for the head of a large snake peeking up from the ground. The Hydnora africana is a parasitic plant that exists almost entirely underground as a large web of roots connected to its host plant, Euphorbia. Said to be as hard as wood, it can take this plant up to a year to flower.
Like lice or fleas, the Hydnora africana, spends the majority of its existence leaching off the Euphorbia plant. And after long periods of slow growth underground, this darling plant showcases the fruits of its "labor" with a fleshy salmon colored flower that surfaces from the ground. Emitting a striking aroma of feces, the flower is not so appealing to humans (for now at least), but is extremely alluring to dung and carrion beetles. And beyond pollinating it, these little critters actually play a crucial role in the blooming of the plant. When the flower emerges from the ground, those fleshy salmon petals attached at the top and the sides are connected by stingy fibers. Unable to resist the stench of the flower, the beetles push through the fibers, but then find themselves in a sticky situation. Inside of the Hydnora africana are small downward facing hairs that help trap the beetles inside of the flower. During their stay, the beetles feed and distribute pollen throughout the plant. And when the large bud fully opens the beetles are free to roam the earth once again, at least until they are lured in by another one of these desert flowers.
Unlike most plants, blooming into a vibrant flower is not the climax for this African flora. After the flower is pollinated, it slowly develops into an edible fruit, each one containing about 20,000 seeds!
You will mostly commonly see the Hydnora africana nestled beside an overgrown Euphorbia plant in South Africa or Madagascar. As it favors very dry, desert climates, seeing it growing in national botanical gardens is unlikely.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Amorphophallus titanum: Reaching up to 10 feet in height and 3-4 feet in diameter, this towering flora always makes its presence known. In addition to being one the the tallest flowers in the world, what may be its most outstanding characteristic is the heavy aroma it permeates. And no, it is not sweet. The plant is said to resemble the smell of a dying corpse, and thus attracts flies, instead of honey-loving bees and other insects, for pollination.
Native to the rainforest of western Sumatra, this unique flower (also known as the titan arum) can be a bit shy. It can take up to six years for the flora to open and expose itself in full bloom. The flora consists of a large spadix (flower producing spike) surrounded by a thick collar (called the spathe) that is a rich purple on the inside and an ombred green-white combination on the outside.
But don't let this dominating flower fool you, it hides more delicate flora inside of its spathe at the base of the spadix. Peek inside of that purple cape, and you'll find a band of cream and pink flowers. When these little buds are in need of pollination the spadix emits that not-so-sweet smell to attract pollinators.
Although it is difficult to cultivate, the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino, CA, The Botanical Garden at Smith College in Northhampton, MA, and other botanical gardens witness the flowering of this unique and rare flora. So if you are ever in town when this plant flowers, stop by for a visit, if you can stomach it.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Black Bat Flower: With black whiskers reaching up to 28 inches long, protruding from a delicate, maroon-black blossom, this rare flora is sure to catch your eye. Its flower can reach up to 1 foot in diameter, while standing 36 inches tall. With whiskers that nearly brush the ground, the unique plant, formally known as Tacca chantrieri, is said to resemble a black bat, hence it's nickname The Black Bat Flower.
Native to Southeast Asia, the flower grows from a large beautiful green foliage and favors shady, moist environments. And like many beautiful things, it requires quite a bit of maintenance. The Black Bat Flower can be quiet the diva regarding its environmental conditions. If it does not receive proper shading and good air circulation, the flower is likely to slowly wither. The plant also does not like being root-bound, and it is kept in a container, must be re-potted it every spring.
Thinking about adding this high-maintenance beauty to your garden? Well we haven't even gotten to its soil requirements yet. As a picky plant, the soil mixture is the most important detail for the successful blooming of the flower. The soil should be light and porous, allowing it to drain easily. Additionally, gardeners must be careful to not let the plant get too wet, while also ensuring it does not dry out.
The plant does best outdoors in naturally humid environments. It can be found being grown in many parts of the world with the proper care. Although, due to its detailed care requirements you may want to stick with easy-to-grow native plants and leave the cultivation of this plant to gardening experts at botanical gardens.
Image by istockphoto/gueholl
Dracunculus Vulgaris: With a long black appendage, known as the spadix, piercing from the center of two delicate purple leaves, this stunning flower is said to be one of the most beautiful European ariods. The black appendage unfolds from a inflorescence, and grows to be up to over 4 feet tall, with its cape like spathe, reaching up to over 3 feet. Although a striking beauty to the eye, your nose might disagree. Like many species of Araceae, this flora expels a nauseating odor of rotten meat when it is matured.
All sound a bit familiar? Well the Dracunculus vulgaris, also known as the Voodoo Lily, is the cousin to the Amorphophallus titanum (skunk cabbage is in the same family). Both have large spadix whose bases hold tiny flowers. And when they demand pollination, the spadix quickly answers their call by emitting a smelly odor to pollinators.
But don't be mistaken, these flowers each hold unique characteristics of their own. Unlike the Amorphophallus titanum, the Voodoo Flower is much easier to grow. The flower self-seeds, causing it to be more widespread than its distant cousin. So although native to the Balkins in Southeastern Europe, this plant can be found in moist, rich soil in Greece, Anatolia and, as of a few years ago, America.
Word to the wise, this beauty has a mean streak, even beyond its smell. The flora is highly poisonous, and although it attracts flies, animals tend to steer clear.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Melissa Pandika is an editorial intern at Sierra and a graduate journalism student at Stanford University. Her interests include environmental health and justice, urban environmental issues, and conservation biology. She has a soft spot for cetaceans.
Brittany Johnson is an editorial intern at Sierra. Her interests include social and environmental justice specifically among underrepresented and disadvantaged communities. She majored in Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, taught English in Tanzania and answered phones in various offices before joining the Sierra family.